What does innovation look like in practice? And why should you try to be innovative, when things are going fine? We spoke to two SME leaders in Greater Manchester to get their take.
‘Innovation’ is often used as a buzzword, without much thought to what it actually means in practice.
From our place at the centre of Greater Manchester’s innovation eco-system, we can be as guilty as anyone of throwing the word around. So, we asked business leaders from two vastly different sectors to dig into their definitions of innovation and discuss how SMEs can apply innovative thinking to their operations.
Speaking below are (TM) Tom Mathew, Commercial Director at Bury foodservice Dunsters Farm, which has been on an incredible growth journey, and (SM) Susan Witterick, Director at Manchester-based dBx Acoustics, which has recently developed a groundbreaking new software tool.
What does innovation mean to businesses?
Being open to new ideas
TM: “Being innovative means having a mindset that’s open to ideas. If you’ve got a growth mindset that’s receptive to change, then that’s the bedrock for finding new commercial opportunities. If you’re flexible and agile – willing to take calculated risks, rather than being constrained by fixed long-term plans – you’re able to respond quickly to changing circumstances, market demands and technology.”
SW: “Innovation is about being brave, but not being stupid. Trying new approaches, developing improved products, but making sure they’re properly researched and tested, and that there’s a robust commercialisation plan.”
Challenging assumptions and creating the right culture
TM: “You also need to accept that your business can always do better. It’s important not to be too precious if someone makes a suggestion for doing something different, and not to take this as a criticism of the way you’ve done things before.
“The way to respond is asking yourself, “Is there an opportunity here?”, and if there might be then have a discussion about it. This thinking applies to what competitors are doing too. Don’t assume you’re doing things better than them. Ask yourself what they’re doing better than you.”
SW: “Even though we’re a small business, it’s so important to still make sure that everyone feels able to contribute their thoughts. It’s about keeping that passion high for problem solving and creativity.”
Identifying customer pain points
SW: “For us, it's all focused on how we can help our clients and solve their problems. There's something about your company that makes your clients come to you, so think about what that is – and think about how you can make that even better. What can you do for your clients that's a bit different from what everybody else is offering.”
TM: “Speaking to your customers is really important. You can do something creative and new, but if it’s not wanted by your target audience then what’s the point. You’ve got to do your research, create surveys, and do whatever else is needed to find out what their pain points are. Only by doing this will you remain relevant.”
TM: “Selecting the right idea that is actually going to be well received and commercially viable can become overwhelming. You might have a handful of things you’ve been toying with, and they all look exciting. The days and weeks go by and because you’re juggling all these new ideas in your head, none of them develop into anything. We’re trying to build a triage process into the business that prioritises potential innovations – saying to ourselves, ‘Let's be more laser focused about which changes we're going to make’.”
SW: “Again, it comes back to who we’re targeting and what we think is going to best answer their problems at a price point they can afford. We try to make sure we know the market inside out and focus on what’s going to make us stand out.”
SW: “I'd had an idea for a new product that I’d been thinking about for a while, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. I didn’t have the right technical skills to work on it myself and, I suspect like many other people out there who are running SMEs, I find it difficult to make the time to do those things that push the business forward, so the idea just stayed in my head.
“Then one day I sat down with one of the Hub’s innovation specialists, told him about it and asked what he thought. He was, like, ‘That’s absolutely brilliant, have you thought about seeing if one of the local universities can help you develop it?’
“And that was how our collaboration project with the University of Salford started. They had the right skills and technology to help, and the new product is launching in September 2023. So, my advice is to be open to looking outside your company if you need to gain momentum and solve your challenges.”
TM: “If you can bring in the right expertise then it’s a no-brainer to work with an external partner. We’ve been working with the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University for two years to embed a culture of continuous improvement, helping us to optimise our resources and improve our efficiency. The specialist knowledge we’ve been able to access has been incredibly valuable.”
Why is innovation important to your business?
TM: “If you don't innovate, you eventually won’t be there. The world changes and you have to respond. We were a family business that always had a sector of the market and just did what we always did. But I didn’t want us to risk trying to get away with continuing on like that. There are too many examples of businesses like that which end up disappearing.
“Being an innovative business has also made us more eye-catching as an employer, enabling us to attract higher calibre job applicants and retain our existing skilled workforce. This has been extremely beneficial as we’ve grown over the past couple of years, from around 50 staff in 2021 to about 150 by early-2024.”
SW: “First and foremost, differentiating ourselves from our competitors brings us more revenue. Being innovative enables us to adapt to shifting client demands and stay ahead of competitors. It’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day and think ‘everyone’s going ok, so why change anything?”, but if you stand still then someone else will come in, do things better and end up taking your market share.”
What’s one quick win for becoming more innovative?
SW: “Definitely talk to somebody outside who can just ask you those little prompt questions that really get you thinking. There’s a whole load of support out there for SMEs like us.
“It's absolutely worth going out and spending an hour sitting down with somebody like one of GC Business Growth Hub’s innovation specialists. I promise you'll get much more out of that hour than you would out of an afternoon sitting in your office, just trying to brainstorm your challenges on your own.
TM: “Accept that you can’t do everything on your own. GM Business Growth Hub are one of the first people we'll go to when we've got an idea. They’ll make suggestions and say ‘Maybe you should speak with this person’. Knowing who to talk to is vital and they play a really important role in connecting us with the right support and funding opportunities for us. The breadth of the business support they’ve given is amazing.”